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Saturday December 3, 2011

Fireball lawyer whose words were weapons

A transgression halted a meteoric career but it was also an opportunity to grow

Special to The Globe and Mail

Marshall Sack, a tenacious criminal lawyer with a photographic memory, took no prisoners. His name resonated throughout Ontario's legal system with the drama of a gavel striking in slow motion. He evoked admiration, fear, jealousy, loyalty, loathing and love. He argued passionately for those he was defending as if his own life depended on the outcome. Whether it was his beloved Maple Leafs on the ice, or a verdict in the courtroom, there was nothing he hated more than losing. He died of cancer, at the age of 64 on Oct. 23 at Kensington Hospice in Toronto.

In an apt metaphor for the lawyer who adored hockey, journalist Christie Blatchford, reporting on the trial of Rose CeCe, accused in the 1998 killing of a Toronto policeman, described Sack's defence: "Marshall Sack spoke for less than an hour, almost entirely without notes. By the time he sat down, the score might not have been tied but it was clear there was a game afoot." She also offered the following observation of Sack: "A man whose every word is usually tinged with imperious sarcasm."

Words were Sack's weapons, and his living. Ironically, in a 2008 high-profile case he described a "sticks and stones" approach to words as being harmless. It was part of his defence for a teenager who had successfully urged her boyfriend, through text and MSN messages, to murder 14-year-old Stephanie Rengel. Despite Sack's best efforts, the court found his client guilty of first-degree murder.

Lawyer Paula Locke says Sack's cross-examination skills were exemplary. "He had the ability to [metaphorically] remove a police officer's pants without him even knowing."

At Sack's eulogy, David O'Connor, a long-time friend and lawyer, admitted to being jealous of Sack's skill at cross-examination. O'Connor read aloud a police officer's account of the experience. "He stands up to begin cross-examination and you're thinking to yourself, I can handle this guy. The next thing you know you are walking out of the courtroom trying to figure how the hell he did that and the really crazy part is that you still like the guy despite the fact that he just gave you an ass-kicking - all the while with that little smirk on his face."

According to his second wife, Vicki, Sack wanted, more than anything, to become a judge. But there was a serious blot on the landscape of his career that precluded any chance of an appointment to the bench.

Sack was born in 1946 in Toronto. He was one of four children born to Louis Sack, a scrap-metal merchant and his wife, Bayla. Bayla was ambitious for her children, particularly her second child, who seemed exceptionally bright. Whether through prescience or wishfulness, she named him after the British lawyer Edward Marshall Hall, who was renowned for his verbal skills. Sack lived up to his namesake. He had a brilliant mind that afforded him scholarships to York University and the University of Toronto, where he studied law.

While in high school, and working summers in North York as a lifeguard, he met Barbara Federman. She was attracted by his athletic build and dynamic personality. He also had a bit of a devilish side that she found appealing. The two married when she was 20 and he was 21.

After graduating in 1973, Sack opened a practice on College Street before deciding to concentrate on criminal law. His success was meteoric. "He went from zero to 50 in about two seconds," says Barbara. "In a way it gave him a sense of invincibility."

In the 1970s, the couple had two children, Matthew and Brendan. Sack felt he'd found a calling in fatherhood. He doted on his sons, and became a "hockey dad," shepherding them to games. He was also capable of astounding the boys by occasionally predicting the next question on the TV show Jeopardy. Brendan Sack attributes this skill to "incredible intuitive logic." He adds, "As brilliant as he was at being a lawyer, he was even better at being a dad."

By the time the mid-80s arrived, Sack and his wife had become emotionally disconnected, even as they continued to live together. In the cocaine-fuelled decade, Sack was ripe for a fall from grace. When he was 39, he encountered Carla Creary, a 17-year-old Jamaican student and part-time model. She had been charged with minor assault. Sack defended her and won.

A year later the two began an affair that lasted four years. In June, 1988, they met in a North York hotel. After spending the afternoon together, Creary went into the bathroom apparently to freshen up. A few minutes later, Sack heard a crash and found Creary convulsing. A glass had smashed onto the floor gashing her foot. For roughly 10 minutes Sack tried to revive her. He also tried to clean up the blood. Phone records showed he then called Howard Cohen, another criminal lawyer and friend. At Cohen's urging, Sack called 911. Creary was transported to Northwestern General Hospital, but it was too late. A toxicology report showed that she had ingested almost pure cocaine, causing her to convulse and choke on her own vomit.

A year later, after Creary's mother and the National Council of Jamaicans appealed to the provincial government, a coroner's inquest was held. Sack denied supplying cocaine or knowing that Creary had been taking it. The coroner's jury ruled that he must have known or at least suspected. They also concluded that he delayed calling emergency crews for an "undue length of time." Their final decision was that, even without the delay, the amount of cocaine Creary had ingested was six times greater than a lethal dose.

During Sack's testimony at the hearing, he said he wasn't trying to save himself from embarrassment or repercussion by not calling 911 ... that it simply didn't occur to him. "I knew I'd have to take my raps. I knew they'd be substantial," he said. The Law Society of Upper Canada reviewed the case, but no disciplinary action was taken.

Creary's tragedy sounded the death knell for Sack's marriage, which ended in divorce. His clients dried up. John Rosen, a colleague, says that Sack understandably became a humbler man after the experience. "He was never the same. He'd had to endure the public humiliation of the coroner's inquest and being scrutinized."

But Sack fought back, slowly rebuilding his practice and his reputation. As the difficult decade ended, a friendship with Vicki Klegerman turned to love. She was a former model with two sons, in the midst of extricating herself from an unhappy second marriage. They married in September, 1992.

Vicki encouraged self-forgiveness in her new husband, reminding him that failure was an opportunity to grow. "Marshall had a large ego that hid an underlying insecurity," she says. "It's true of many criminal lawyers because they're not the author of the play, they're the actors." In the same vein she confides that Sack had a life-long fear of flying. "He wasn't in control of the plane."

Vicki encouraged her husband to grow his hair into the long silver ponytail that became something of a trademark. She was not, however, able to dissuade him from his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Matthew Sack says that, in his father's final days, smoking was one his greatest regrets.

Louis Strezos, a lawyer who worked with Sack periodically, sums him up this way: "He had his challenges, but he understood the human condition with all its potential and pitfalls better than most. He was compassionate, and you always knew where you stood with him."

Sack leaves his wife, Vicki, sons Matthew and Brendan, stepsons Jesse and Tyler and grandchildren Ashley and Dylan.

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